Tending the Baby

4 09 2015

Years ago, when Gwen was first born, a family emergency put me in such a state of stress that I didn’t immediately have those blissful feelings of love and attachment.  It wasn’t that I didn’t instantly care for her, but my experience in those early days were less than blissful. I was in constant fight or flight. The stress of being a first time mother coupled with the stress of the family situation, put a damper on my excitement and the bonding came slowly. It was a common topic with my then therapist and she assured me that the love that you have for your child is something that grows over time as you spend more and more effort caring for them. She also assured me that the family drama that had sucked my bliss, would eventually fade into the background. Her exact words, “SO many things in life will eventually be SO much more important than this.” I put my trust her her wisdom and, of course, she was totally spot on.

Over the past thirteen years, her words have returned — whether in the form of advice from me to a friend, or when I was having trouble bonding with our chihuahua, Stewart. It has been one of those nuggets of wisdom that has stayed with me and that has come back to the foreground just this week.

We’ve been in our current house for fourteen and a half years.  I can tell you pretty much everything about the way it functions and is constructed. The walls are solid, framed in 2×6’s rather than 2×4’s. The exterior is a thick layer of stucco while the interior is very thick lathe and plaster.  As one contractor put it, the house is bulletproof  (which comes in handy sometimes in East Palo Alto — although less and less). The sewer line is terracotta, the foundation is slab. Some roofers (back before we bought the house) drilled holes in the roof and swept all the gravel onto the ceiling to avoid dump costs. We have seen inside her walls. We have opened the ceiling to let gravel rain onto the floor. We have watched video (courtesy of Roto Rooter) of the roots penetrating the sewer line.  We know the ins and outs and, over time we grew to love this little house that we only meant to stay in until I went off to get the PhD that never happened. Suddenly, three months shy of a decade and a half, we find ourselves with a new baby that we don’t quite know or understand.

The new baby is a completely different creature.  It is post and pier in front, slab for the master.  The kitchen and master have press-board-on-sleeper floors that have caused me sleepless nights.  What’s under there?  Do we keep the raised floor or take both rooms down to the base? The house is framed in 2×3’s. The sewer, well, don’t even get me started.  Neither of us has ever lived on a property with septic, let alone a system that has an alarm that alerts total strangers that perhaps someone in the family has a bout of diarrhea that has caused us to go over the system’s flush capacity.

We have two springs on the property — a lovely mountain spring that is captured into a 2500 gallon tank and a sulphur spring that seeps off the mountain into the creek.   We also have a well that is currently operable, but that we need to buy a 5000 gallon tank for and have the house hooked up to as the main water source.  All brand new territory.  The lattice work of wires and piping all over the property is overwhelming.  While the systems themselves are quite simple, the number of systems we need to learn about are many. And the roof, the four glorious layers of poorly done roof that could be masking a nightmare, yeah, the bonding has been slow…

The day before yesterday I met with the septic guy who is installing the new system.  Thank GOD we got it in contract that the previous owner was footing the $35,000 bill. He gave me the Septic 101 crash course and mentioned what we could and could not flush and put down the drains. He also warned me that if we have a huge gathering, we might just push our daily flow limit and set off the alarms.  It seems that, even not in drought years, we will need to have embroidered toss pillows reminding everyone, If it’s yellow, let it mellow. Oh, and I also learned that the hole in my office floor, that I had so hoped and assumed to be a toilet flange, is just a remnant of an extensive hydroponic system.  As one contractor joked, “If I were the new owner…”, but truthfully, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

When I was done with the septic guy, I checked on Evan’s work.  Evan and a helper were working on taking down the chimney.  We are removing the fireplace as we felt with the number of cracks in the chimney and firebox, there was no point in trying to repair or preserve it. He told me that when he got the scaffolding up, he checked the stability of the chimney and it was rocking back and forth — completely disconnected from both the house and the firebox. A disaster waiting to happen.  Bubbye.

I’ve been going to the house everyday just to check up — make sure work is getting done, and that no one has looted the possessions we’ve already transported there. Yesterday I went up with three goals: 1. Make sure work was getting done, 2. Look for my missing sunglasses, and 3. Remove a piece of the elevated floor in the master to see what condition the slab is in.

When I arrived, Evan and his helper were sitting out at our favorite place on the deck taking a break. I found myself not getting my hackles up, as I normally would, for two reasons — the first being that I loved seeing people enjoying that deck the way that we do.  It was one of the biggest draws for us to this house, the second being that I’ve watched these guys work. Sawing away pieces and chunks of brick is tedious and exhausting.  If they’d been at it since 8, and it was already noon, they deserved a bit of rest.

I greeted the two men as I climbed the stairs and Evan commented on how absolutely quiet it is in that spot.  I told him that I’ve gotten to the point where when a single leaf falls, I stop and listen — making sure it’s not the footfall of a deer or, the quiet careful step of a cougar. It’s THAT quiet.  There is no road noise, no people noise, you cannot see anyone else’s house. There are no sirens or garbage trucks, no car alarms or leaf blowers. There aren’t gaggles of teens walking by in the middle of the road on their way to or from school. The absence of all of that makes us more eager to wave to or greet our neighbors when they do pass.  It makes each encounter more special.  I find I get excited when I see someone I’ve met and like — Noel in his navy blue Range Rover, or Bradd in his Mercedes convertible passing by with his Pomeranian, Foxy, sitting in his lap with his doggie sunglasses on.

Evan asked me how far the property goes back. I gestured up the ridge to where the logging road is and told him it runs from way up, to way down the slope to the creek.  He looked around himself and said, “This is a really neat spot.”

It is incredibly validating to have person after person feel the magic that we felt when we first set foot here.

Evan gets up and shows me the work.  There is rot around where the fireplace window was — no surprise — and the metal part of the firebox is rusted and brittle.  I break a piece off and am more deeply comfortable with our decision to let this thing go.  Evan shows me the extent of the rot, but says the framing is in much better shape than he expected.  Today they will start framing for the new six foot window.  I’m excited.

I went in the house and gathered my tools — the floor scraper to remove the vinyl “tile” squares glued to the pressboard floor, a phillips head screw driver to take up the rusted screws in the floor, and a shovel to help me pry up one of the sheets of pressboard.  I set to work, only removing sections of vinyl where I can feel a rise in the floor, an indication of where the sleepers are underneath and, therefore, where the boards are screwed down.  Thirty minutes later, I wedge the shovel in a crack and begin trying to lift the board.  Some of the screws have broken, so it doesn’t come up easily. With some effort, I am finally able to lift it enough to see underneath.  The slab is smooth and level. Suddenly, this piece of the house that I feared (and even lost sleep over) because I did not understand it, feels familiar.  I know how this works, how to seal a slab and lay down hardwood.  This is suddenly going to be easy.

I stand up and look around and begin to imagine this room as the master suite it will become, and I begin to formulate a quick timeline for getting half of the room “livable” for our move in date in eleven days.  We can do this.

There has been a shift from feeling as though I have to go up to the house, to an excitement of wanting to go to the house and get work done.  The more I care for the house, the more familiar it becomes to me and the more attached I get.

I put all my tools away, satisfied with what I’ve discovered, and go outside to say goodbye to Evan. We talk a little about the timeline of work and he says again, “It’s really neat here.”  I say what I always say, that we didn’t buy this property for the house. “Yeah,” Evan says, “but we’re going to make it really nice for you guys.” I look at the house, torn apart and strewn with rubble, and realize that I am finally falling in love.




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